April 2010

Smooth, Southern-flavored tales

By Lee Smith
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In recent years, many in the literary world have declared the short story to be a format that, while not dead, is in decidedly poor health. Though the short story’s popularity may be debatable, there are a number of talented writers making great contributions to the genre—and bringing the too-often overlooked short story to the foreground of the literary community.

Lee Smith is one of those writers, and her new collection, Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger, is a treat. The Southern-born Smith has been a lauded force on the literary scene since the early 1970s, with a dozen novels and three previous collections of stories to her name. Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger contains seven new stories blended with seven from older collections; the result is a lyrical, moving mix of tales featuring strong and complex characters, delivered with Smith’s trademark wit and insight.

The standout stories here include one about a teenage girl who, while coping with her father’s breakdown and mother’s denial, begins to speak in tongues; a young, unhappy bride whose passive-aggressive move before a car trip leads to an appalling tragedy; a hapless man whose wife is being ravaged by cancer; and a corpulent woman who finds real freedom in being caught for her crimes. Smith’s characters run the gamut—they are young and old, barely literate and highly educated; some tales are told in the first person while others are in the third-person narrative. The one common thread is Smith’s astute—and unmistakable—Southern perspective.

As in any collection, some of Smith’s stories are more compelling than others, but most are filled with humor, pathos and satisfying moments of revelation and clarity. The stories shine as a collection, but standouts like “Toastmaster” and “Stevie and Mama” are especially impressive when considered on an individual basis.

Whether you are a short story devotee or simply a lover of good fiction, you will find much to admire—and savor—in Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger.

Rebecca Stropoli writes from Brooklyn, New York.

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